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The MasterChef Australia judges loved SA so much that one wants to open a restaurant called chakalaka

Dan Nicholl spent a few days with the three Masterchef Australia judges in Pretoria. See what they got up to!

by: Dan Nicholl | 18 Sep 2019

I’m writing this from 38 000 feet, according to the Singapore Airlines pilot manning my flight, while I work my way through a pleasant wine list (albeit one without anything South African), and digest a comprehensive introduction to the cuisine of Japan. I’m en route to Tokyo, and what will hopefully be a night of rugby celebration on Saturday. Before the rugby, however, there’s much culinary exploration to be done, and I have some expert guidance – from a trio of Australians called Matt, George and Gary.

The better part of last week was spent at Time Square, the Pretoria casino complex that for four days became South Africa’s food mecca. Appetite Fest had its maiden outing last year, a celebration of indulgence I had the pleasure of hosting. It proved a smash hit, largely thanks to a stellar line-up of chefs, headlined by the aforementioned Aussies who are best known for their work on 11 ridiculously successful seasons of MasterChef. Thanks to cooking’s definitive reality show, half of Mexico now wears cravats, every cook in India uses tweezers in the kitchen, and Gary has become the most popular children’s name in Portugal – and as for South Africa…

The simplest statistic is that South Africa is MasterChef Australia’s second biggest global audience. It was proven at last year’s event and again this year, as crowds poured in from across the country to meet the television stars. And through cooking demonstrations, book signings, kitchen master classes and question-and-answer sessions, those crowds got the same reward they did from watching them on television: a trio of entertaining, authentic guys with a passion for food and people – and for South Africa. George Calombaris’s love of the country kicked off with a visit to the 2010 World Cup, and he’s been a fan ever since. (He’s also besotted with the word ‘chakalaka’, and is threatening to open a restaurant of the same name in South Africa.) Matt Preston’s four days in the country saw the makers of Ghost Pops ready to list the product on the JSE – and in the greatest display of charm Pretoria has ever seen, he pulled off a Klipdrift and Coke dessert that had very large men weeping into their khaki shirts. And not only is Gary Mehigan a huge fan of our food scene – namechecking Marble and Saint, Fermier, The Test Kitchen, Chef’s Warehouse and Mosaic amongst South African restaurants he holds in high esteem – he’s also a lover of South African wine.

And so we wrapped up four intense days of cooking (them) and running around with a microphone (me) over a few bottles on Sunday night, reflecting on a very successful event that had the feel of a farewell tour, given the end of their combined tenure on MasterChef. But there was also a spring feel, given the adventures that lie ahead as new chapters begin. Matt and George have new books out (Gary promises that one is imminent). George is back in the kitchen at Hellenic Republic in Melbourne, with a new shop, Elektra, about to open. Gary has travels aplenty on the horizon. And Matt will continue to write beautifully, honestly and knowledgeably about food, to the delight of us all.

But, best of all, we’ll see them on television together again. They’ve formed a production company together, have a slew of ideas simmering, and one or two will come to the boil soon. There’s no exact date, nor a specific brief on what to expect – but as Clarkson, Hammond and May followed Top Gear with the Grand Tour, expect Preston, Mehigan and Calombaris to embark on an adventure that combines food and travel to most entertaining effect.

Whatever the new show entails, however, and whenever it does kick off, South Africa has three very high-profile food and wine advocates. And as we wrapped up on Sunday night – for the record, drinking Tokara’s Director’s Reserve white blend, a lovely sauvignon/semillon duet, and the splendid Baronness Nadine chardonnay from Anthonij Rupert, appropriately paired with biltong – it was easy to sum up just why MasterChef Australia has been such a global phenomenon. Three great mates, all natural entertainers, having an enormous amount of fun doing something they love. Simple, really.

What I’m drinking this week: When I’m not filming Dan Really Likes Wine, my weekly wine show, I’m on set for The Dan Nicholl Show, which kicked off its tenth season a couple of weeks ago – and to celebrate over dinner at Marble, had a couple of bottles of the 2015 Paul Sauer, now guaranteed mythical status after getting 100 points from Tim Atkin. (We give England rugby players and cricketers; in return we get Tim championing our wine. It’s a pretty good deal.) I could ramble on happily for pages about the Paul Sauer, but here’s the very short version: it’s smooth, but still with plenty of character; it’s rich and elegant, but still has an earthiness to it; and it disappears very, very quickly. And it’s now almost impossible to get, for which you have Mr Atkin to blame.

Catch a special edition of the Dan Nicholl Show featuring MasterChef Australia's Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston on Wednesday night at 7PM on SuperSport 8. 

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